by Sara G. Stephens
Ballet dancing is not a means to an end. After all, only a small minority of ballet dancers make it into the professional dancing world. But learning and practicing the art of ballet benefits a dancer immediately, continuously, progressively, and consistently throughout life, both mentally and physically. “The skills I learned in ballet class were so important to succeed in anything,” says Roxanne Claire, owner of Claire School of Dance in the Heights, “but I have always said that the most important thing I got from my dance training was self discipline.”
Claire’s school accepts students from age two and a half and up. The discipline starts immediately, with the youngest dancers learning how to take turns and listen to the teacher, which prepares them for the school environment they will soon enter. The discipline plays into different aspects of life as the dancers get older. “All discipline ultimately comes from mental discipline,” Claire observes. “Making yourself do something is something you do inside yourself—for example, the mentality of ‘I’m going to do this dance movement,’ comes from the same place inside you as the mentality of ‘I’m going to go to class,” she says.
A dance student must get to class every week (sometimes multiple days per week) after already having spent a good number of hours at school, and with the knowledge that she or he is still responsible for completing homework assignments, chores, etc. On top of this, the dancer must develop a long-term perspective and stick to the program, through its ups and its downs. “Dancers confront the difficult challenge of accepting that they might not be good at this today, and maybe won’t be tomorrow, but that they will do it on a regular basis, and in five years, will become much better,” Claire explains.
Another type of discipline comes in the form of making choices, and being willing to give up one thing for another. Children, just like adults, have limited time to allocate to “free-time” activities. The fact that a child must still attend school, do homework, study for tests, and so on, factors heavily into his or her decision to take on extracurricular activities. School is the priority and must not suffer at the hand of these activities. As a child progresses to more advanced levels of dance, the number of hours required to attend dance class increases, thereby cutting into not only time for school activities, but also for “fun time.” And yet, remarkably, strong academic performance is common, if not prevalent among dance students.
The dressing room and waiting areas at Adamson Ballet School in Katy are colored with scenes of dancers of various ages, dressed in their leotards and tights, productively filling the time before dance class or between two different classes. Some stretch out on the floor among stacks of books, thoughtfully penning their homework assignments, while others gather in whispering groups, quizzing each other in preparation for tests.
“I am continually impressed with our students. They excel in their dance training and their academics,” says Karen Adamson, owner of the Adamson Ballet School. She adds that balancing life’s busy schedules is a challenge, and that balancing school and any extracurricular activity is healthy for a child to prepare for such demands in adulthood.
Also, there’s a certain sense of responsibility that’s instilled in a ballet class. Very few good reasons exist for not being in class. Most of the time, it’s important to the student to be there, and if the class is rehearsing for a performance, attendance affects other people, too. “But mostly it’s for you,” Claire decides, “You’re responsible for your own development.”
As if a strengthened sense of self-discipline weren’t enough, ballet training also benefits other aspects of the dancer’s mind and body.
Just as the essentials of ballet trailing strengthen disciplinary skills, they similarly build the dancer’s understanding of spatial relations, geometry, physics, and other math and science principles, according to Andrea Cody, owner of Dance Houston, on West Clay Street. Cody cites a statistic she read from the College Entrance Examination Board, stating that students who study dance score an average of 36 and 15 points higher on verbal and math SATs, respectively. “I know, personally, I was able to understand concepts I was learning in high school, because I was able to pull in concepts from dance and choreography that I was physically doing,” she says. “What I was doing in dance during class was reinforced within my school curriculum.”
Ballet demands that students execute their steps proficiently, Adamson explains, adding that “students are aware that the only way to advance in their dance training is to have clear and consistent focus on not only their dance training, but also on their dance goals.”
Claire adds to this notion, explaining that the development of focusing skills begins with the youngest dancers paying attention long enough to receive instructions. A little later, they focus on bending their knees and straightening them. As dancers advance, their focus is refined to understand movement and awareness of the body’s moving parts. Later, they learn to keep their bottoms tucked in, to think of the pelvis as a bowl and not spill the water forward or backward, then to coordinate the arms, and finally to think of where the music is. “It’s not just down and up, it’s down, down, down, down, and up, up, up, up,” Claire says. “They learn to count the music, and they learn to become more sensitive to very small aspects of movement, such as where their weight is, and other parts of the body in relation, like turning the head as the arms open. This demands attention and focus.”
Accepting Constructive Criticism
For anyone, criticism is often a hard pill to swallow. Dancers, however, constantly receive critique, and they learn to not only accept it, but also desire it. It is no longer perceived as a negative experience. “In fact, you quickly get to a point where if you don’t get critique in class, you feel slighted,” Claire says. “It’s an enormous gift at a very early age to recognize when someone who is giving you comments is doing so in your best interest—to be able to listen to what’s being offered and apply it.”
Clearly, as Adamson points out, the more a student develops technique and advances in skill level, the more confidence he or she develops. Although young students aren’t burdened with a sense of self-consciousness, teens and adults can be paralyzed with the fear of doing something wrong and looking stupid in the process. For this reason, Claire instructs all of her Level 1 ballet students that the one thing they must bring to class is courage. “It does take a while to learn how to perform a movement, and the student has to have a certain amount of courage to stand up and perform the movement knowing they can’t do it,” Claire says. “The only way to learn, though, is to do it imperfectly several thousand times. It takes courage to try new things and to accept that it’s okay not to be perfect the first thousand times. You have to settle in for the long haul and keep plugging away.” Such courage is a fundamental building block to self confidence that will permeate every aspect of a dancer’s life.
Most of the students at Adamson’s school bond through dance and become dance buddies, despite the fact that they do not attend the same academic schools. “All of our students develop close friendships with their dance classmates,” Adamson says. Claire agrees that the classes are excellent breeding grounds for friendships. Although the students are not allowed to talk to each other in class, it is still a very social environment based on sharing the same experience and learning a different way to be together as friends. Ballet classes foster camaraderie, as the students learn a dance and discover the importance of teamwork, and the fact that each person has a role to play. This realization is facilitated at every stage of learning ballet, with the enforcement of very strict rules of etiquette. “Obviously, you learn to take turns, wait your turn, and know that you don’t always get to go first,” Claire says. “You’re not the most important person in the class, and you need to be happy for other people when they do a good job,” she says, adding that her school encourages applauding each other after performing and being appreciative of someone else’s skill.
Cody recommends that parents of boys not dismiss dance as an activity. Many parents don’t want to put their son through the awkwardness of being the only boy in class, but Cody advises that these parents should also consider different types of dance that might appeal to their kids’ specific music and pop culture interests. “Dance is a great way to stand out socially and look cool,” she says, “and boys particularly enjoy hip hop, break dancing, and even Latin dance and ballroom.” Cody adds that some cultural styles, like folkloric dance, appeal more to boys’ sensibilities, and she encourages parents to investigate such opportunities. “Ninety-six percent of kids do not get access to dance,” she says, “and that’s such a shame, given the well rounded benefits it provides.”
“Remembering combinations and dances on a weekly basis will absolutely enhance memory capabilities,” Adamson says, adding that some students have naturally good memories, while others have more difficulty. The higher a dancer progresses in skill level, the less the teacher demonstrates the steps and combinations, Claire adds, making it critical that students listen very carefully. Furthermore, the dance combinations get longer the higher up in class a student advances. “That’s when you must develop the ability to recognize patterns,” she says. “If a student memorizes the phrase, when it repeats later on, she already knows it.” Claire describes the ability to memorize and recognize patterns as a “beautiful and important skill” that creates pathways in the brain and enables a completely different way of learning and using the brain.
Posture, flexibility, and coordination all improve through hard work and regular attendance of dance, according to Adamson. “All of us experience different physical limitations in life,” she says, “but we can always work on improving our current condition. Dance methodically and deliberately focuses on these issues, thereby making it easier to improve these specific areas.” Ballet, specifically, offers students an enlightened awareness of their bodies, their posture, body alignment, and a refined sense of movement. “Ballet is very persnickety, I want to say, about things like technique,” Claire explains, “which is one reason why in other forms of dance, like jazz—or even sports like ice skating or gymnastics—they will also want to see you in a ballet class.” The benefits of improved posture extend well beyond the years spent on such activities. Ballet training shows up much later in life, when a person gets older and might otherwise start experiencing back pain, which is directly linked to posture. According to Claire, ballet posture becomes a matter of habit. “It’s a part of who you are and how you move,” she says. “It’s a health benefit you don’t realize until much later, and people around you are having mobility problems. Also, the awareness dancers gain of their bodies makes it easier for them to understand what they’re experiencing and how to fix it.”
The physically rigorous nature of ballet training carries with it an imposed sense of lifestyle. More advanced students watch what they eat, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep, for example. “They become very attentive and responsible to their instrument and responsible to their lives as well,” Claire says. “Someone who is very active in an activity doesn’t have the time or opportunity for unhealthy choices, because they’re either in class, in school, or in bed.” She adds that dancers tend to socialize with other dancers and with people who don’t think highly of drug and alcohol use, and that most dancers don’t smoke cigarettes.
So, regardless of whether a dance student continues on with a professional dance career, he or she still carries fond memories and personality traits that stem from that training. Ballet is a beautiful art, and students gain a heightened appreciation for the art form as they understand it more completely, Adamson says.
Obviously, the benefits of taking ballet are numerous, and they are far-reaching, extending well beyond the actual dancing experience. As Adamson says, “ Attending a weekly dance class on a consistent basis gives students purpose and direction in their lives and teaches them to be accountable, not only to themselves, but to others as well. It offers a tremendous learning experience for dancers of all ages.”